Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Performance from a Small Off-Grid System

Gasoline prices have soared over the past couple of years, and some believe that electricity rates will soon follow. When that happens, alternatives like PV (photovoltaic) systems will become an attractive option. The surge in demand for solar panels will result in higher prices, and only the well-to-do will be able to install systems large enough to meet the needs of an entire household. The average home owner will be forced to pay the high utility rates, or to learn to get by with a small PV system. The good news is that you can get by with a smaller PV system than you might have imagined, but it’s going to take some “out-of-the-box” thinking.

Much has been written about the benefits of home improvements such as adding insulation, replacing windows and doors, efficient lighting and appliances, the elimination of phantom loads, and passive solar improvements. Alternatives to electric heating and cooling are also important. These are logical, and often necessary, prerequisites to PV system implementation, and especially important to anyone wanting to get by with a small system. Since those topics have been discussed at length elsewhere, this discussion will be limited to getting the most from a small PV system.

The daily capacity of a PV system can be calculated by multiplying the capacity of the PV array, in watts, by the number of hours of peak sunlight. A PV panel array consisting of five one hundred watt panels, for example, can produce 2000 watt-hours in a four-hour period. That’s 500 watts times 4 hours. It is widely accepted as fact that an off-grid PV system with batteries will be 65% efficient, lowering the expected daily production in this case from 2000 watt-hours to just 1300 watt-hours. Now that you know the basics, let’s explore some ideas for getting most from a small PV system:

1. Load shifting

An off-grid system is least efficient when it is used to charge batteries. The inefficiencies associated with converting energy, storing it, and converting the stored energy back to electricity results in a huge energy loss. The obvious solution therefore is to use electricity directly from the solar panels as it is produced, instead of storing it in batteries for use at a later time. Doing the laundry, running a vacuum cleaner, and cooking are some of the obvious tasks you can do in the daytime, but other strategies are not so obvious.

A well-insulated chest freezer will keep things frozen for many hours in the event of a power loss. Consider putting your chest freezer on a timer, limiting its operating hours to daytime. This will require a little experimentation, as you don’t want food to partially thaw each night.

To improve its efficiency, move your chest freezer to the coolest part of the house, perhaps the basement. Allow plenty of room for air circulation near the condenser to improve operating efficiency, don't limit it to the two or three inches that the manual suggests.

2. Eliminate unnecessary appliances

Could you get by without a refrigerator? You certainly could if you had to, and you’ll reduce the load on your PV system by 1000 to 3000 watt-hours each day. You’ll be able to eliminate a dozen or more solar panels from your array, saving a small fortune. I spoke to a friend recently who, after his refrigerator failed, continued to use it to keep items cold by using ice from his chest freezer. He used his chest freezer to produce ice, and placed that ice in his refrigerator. Milk jugs provided a convenient way to do it, and he cycled three, one gallon jugs, from his freezer to his refrigerator each day.

Perhaps you’re not quite ready to shut down your refrigerator full-time. Instead, why not put it on a timer? Shutting it down for a few hours each night will reduce the system load significantly.

Converting a chest freezer to a super-efficient refrigerator is another strategy you might consider. A thermostat mounted inside the freezer switches AC power to the freezer on and off as needed. No significant modifications to the chest freezer are necessary.

3. Add diversion load control to your PV system

If you monitor your PV system during the day you probably find that once the batteries are fully charged, you have a lot of excess energy available that doesn’t get used. Putting this previously wasted energy to use can significantly increase the usefulness of a small PV system. Adding diversion load control to your system is one way to tap into that extra energy. Some charge controllers can be used as diversion load controllers, but you can also use a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) for the task. I use a Morningstar Relay Driver, a much less expensive option.

Often, systems are designed to use the extra energy to pre-heat water, but that’s probably the least-efficient way to use it. Using the sun to heat water directly makes more sense. If your home uses a cistern for its water supply, using this excess energy to pump water is a much better idea. It is far better to use excess energy for this task than to have to pump water at night, due to demand, using energy from batteries.

You could also use the excess energy to charge a spare battery bank. The spare battery bank might be used to power some DC loads, 12-volt dc lights for example. Using this surplus power for DC loads eliminates the conversion loss that you would otherwise experience by running a DC to AC inverter. This might allow you to turn off your inverter, perhaps all night long, saving yourself the power it consumes when idling.

4. Make Peukert’s Law work to your advantage

According to Peukert, a lightly loaded battery bank operates at higher efficiency than a heavily loaded battery bank. Looking at this another way; if you increase the size of the battery bank, without increasing the load, efficiency improves. Take advantage of this phenomenon by making your battery bank larger than necessary. As a bonus, your batteries will last longer because they’ll be stressed less.

Avoid using two or more high-power appliances at the same time. Making toast, while using the microwave oven, is an example of this. Heavy current from the battery bank results in lower efficiency, according to Peukert.


Anyone who’s ever struggled to get through an extended grid power failure knows that electricity is more than simply a matter of comfort and convenience. While it’s a necessity for some, it would be hard for any of us to get by without it. Imagine doing without lights on a long winter evening, or not having the ability to keep food refrigerated. Imagine doing without air conditioning, and not even having an electric fan to circulate fresh air.

Use these strategies to the extent that you can. You might start by adding the ability to log system data. The ability to log data will help you determine if system improvements and modifications are beneficial. Adding automation to your system is the logical next step. This allows you to shift loads and divert power when it is beneficial to do so. And most importantly, be on the lookout for other ways to lighten the load and improve system performance. Please share your ideas with the rest of us, in the form of a comment, so that we can all learn from each other.



Damon said...

Excellent as ever SJ; thanks!

May I quibble?

You should use Watt-hours or Wh (which is Watts times hours) not Watt/hours or Watts/hours which would be a very strange non-multiplied unit!



Suman said...

hi john,
i am a regular reader of your blogs and i found most of them very informative. However, I had a little thought and would like to ask if you have any information.
I was thinking of a charge monitoring system (may be analogue or digital)across the battery which would give us the exact idea of the state of the battery.i.e how much charge is left etc.
Is it possible to arrange such equipment? Have you got any information in this thing? I would be very grateful if you can provide some information in this issue.


John said...

To measure battery state of charge (SOC), you need to know three things; battery voltage, battery temperature, and current flow (to or from the battery). You can't do it with a simple (volt) meter. May I suggest a TriMetric, or some other device made specifically to measure SOC. I've provided another way to measure battery SOC here:

Good Luck!

Everett Smith said...

Solar John

Your posts are always inspiring, and give me a kick in the butt to take action and implement renewable technologies in my home. with the high costs associated, I have to rely on self done homebrew style renewable energy, and you always have great info to learn from.